A flesh-eating fungus killed five people following the massive tornado that devastated Joplin, Mo., last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined.
Health officials should be aware of infections caused by the common, fast-growing fungus — known as Apophysomyces — according to research conducted by the CDC and the Translational Genomics Research Institute.
Researchers and CDC disease detectives tracked 13 people infected by the pathogen during the tornado whose 200-plus mph winds raked Joplin on May 22, 2011, killing 160 and injuring more than 1,000.
The fungus — which lives in soil, wood, or water — is usually harmless. But if it makes its way into the body through an open wound, it can grow quickly and be lethal. Five of the 13 people infected through injuries suffered during the Joplin tornado died within two weeks, the CDC said.
"Increased awareness of fungi as a cause of necrotizing soft-tissue infections after a natural disaster is warranted … since early treatment may improve outcomes," said researchers, who reported their findings in The New England Journal of Medicine and the Public Library of Science journal PLOS One.
"This is one of the most severe fungal infections that anyone's ever seen," said David Engelthaler, director of programs and operations for TGen's Pathogen Genomics Division. "We're able to apply the latest in science and technology to explore these strange and dangerous pathogens, like we've never been able to before. This is the first peek into the genome of this dangerous fungus."
Dr. Benjamin Park, chief of epidemiology at the CDC's Mycotic Diseases Branch, said the victims were infected when their injuries from the tornado were contaminated with debris from the storm, including gravel, wood, soil, and fungus.
He added that such cases are rare: "A typical hospital might normally see one case in a year."
Engelthaler said the fungus rapidly ravages the body, shuts down the blood supply, and leaves tissue to rot. Physicians fight the infection by removing sections of dead, damaged or infected tissue. For example, Engelthaler said, one victim who suffered a deep chest wound required a new titanium rib cage after the fungus destroyed skin and bones.
"It's unlike anything you've ever seen before," he said. "It's unreal. It looks like there is no way this person can be alive."
Researchers said genetic sequencing could lead to better diagnosis and treatment of the pathogen.